There are two things about the Western Michigan Broncos that don’t immediately come to mind, but should:
1. The Broncos are smart.
The team’s grade-point average for last year was 3.30.
2. The Broncos had a good season.
Western Michigan had 10 wins in the second half of the season, including splits with Miami and Notre Dame, and a two-game sweep of eventual national champion Michigan State — all teams ahead of the Broncs in the standings.
First things first.
“We had a great off-season at Western Michigan,” said head coach Jim Culhane. “I thought our players did a great job in the weight room improving on their athleticism and their strength.
“In addition to that, I’m very proud that we did a great job last semester and last year in the classroom with a roster of 27 student-athletes. I think at times we can put this on the back burner, but our team grade-point average was a 3.30 with three guys with 4.0, and graduating five student-athletes on time where these young men are competing over four years and not redshirting like some of the other intercollegiate sports at the Division I level and guys walking out with their degrees in four years.”
With all that brainpower, then, it’s no surprise that Western Michigan learned from its first-half mistakes and posted such great numbers down the stretch … until, that is, the Broncos ran into Alaska in their own building in the first round of the CCHA playoffs.
And that little series is probably the reason why few folks remember that WMU had a great 2006-07 season.
“We were pleased about our year last year,” said Culhane. “We had a strong second half [but give] all the credit to Alaska in the first round of playoffs. Give them high marks and full regard.”
After earning home ice in the first round, the Broncos saw their season end in three games to the visiting Nanooks, who beat them in overtime the first night and by a goal (and an empty-netter) the third.
“You learn from your experiences,” said Culhane. “We battled so hard to have home ice [that] we’re left collectively with that as a program.”
Follow the Leader
Perhaps the smartest of the Bronco bunch is Culhane himself, who refused to single out any incoming freshman as someone to watch.
“I’m going to give you the standard coach’s answer here: we’ve got some good, young talented kids coming in, but they’re young. I don’t like to put a lot of pressure on these kids; it’s their biggest step in hockey, going from junior to college.
“I expect them all to contribute. They’ve got some skill there.”
Now that’s the kind of diplomacy that keeps you employed. Culhane knows that players read their own press.
Culhane did reveal a little about his team overall. “I really like our chemistry. We’ve got a great group. Our willingness, our attention to detail … for us, we have to be a solid team to compete.”
The veteran talent upon which Culhane and the Broncos will rely includes a few guys who can score goals — the Broncos never seem to have a problem scoring goals — and a sophomore netminder who appears to be the real deal.
“Up front, looking at key contributors in the upcoming season, Jeff LoVecchio, Jeff Pierce, Brian Bicek, I think will be key contributors for us,” said Culhane. “Someone we expect to have a real big year for us is Patrick Galivan with some sprinkling in from our freshman class with a couple guys that were drafted this past June in Max Campbell, a Ranger draft, and Ryan Watson, who was a Florida draft.
“On the blue line, I feel we have some depth there with senior Nathan Ansell, Jonathan Lupa, a couple of juniors in Steve Silver and Chris Frank and sophomore Tyler Ludwig,” said Culhane.
Without singling anybody out, Campbell had 46 goals in 46 games for the Strathroy Raiders last season. He was the Ontario Hockey Association Junior B Player of the Year and was drafted in the fifth round by New York.
Sophomore Riley Gill will be joined by Jerry Kuhn of the Sioux City Musketeers (USHL). Last year, Kuhn had a .921 save percentage and a 2.67 goals-against average in 49 games played.
Of course, the Broncos said goodbye to last year’s CCHA Rookie of the Year and their leading scorer, Mark Letestu. They’ll miss his 24 goals, but perhaps that’s all they’ll miss of him.
All the Way Home
Last year, the Broncos returned to their winning ways at home in the fearsome Lawson Arena (12-8-0), that final series notwithstanding.
Of course, it’s that final series that WMU remembers most.
“We had a great off-season,” said Culhane. “Everybody stayed. It was great. They pushed themselves really hard in the spring and the summer to improve on their athleticism and strength and conditioning.
“We’ve got a real lunch-pail approach to what we do.”